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Thai there!

The Thais are quite warm towards India. A week’s coverage in the Bangkok Post included not only the Jaipur Lit Festival but also sadhus bathing at the Sangam and a malkhambh display at a rural sports meet in Sagar, MP. Bollywood, especially its soundtracks, is big too, writes Abhilash Gaur.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2009 23:18 IST

Is Thailand really the Land of Smiles? You can’t make that out from the starched immigration officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport. But outside, you’ll find blue and green-and-yellow taxis, even pinks and orange ones. And yes, the Thais are quick to smile — partly, I realised, to cover up their difficulties with speaking English.

Late one night outside the Central World Mall in Bangkok, I wanted to ask a flower-seller some questions. She, of course, knew no English. But the interview materialised nonetheless. A mall guard, with just a bit of English on him, introduced me to three technicians. When their stock of English ran out, the trio took me to their stylish and busy supervisor. Unable to comprehend me, she called up her manager on the phone.

I explained myself as well as I could to the voice at the other end and submitted my four little questions. The manager translated them into Thai for the supervisor, who came upstairs and spoke to the flower seller. Answers obtained, the supervisor conveyed them to the manager, who passed them on to me in English. Half an hour spent for a stranger. That’s the kind of people the Thais are.

But by far the warmest of Thai feelings seems reserved for their king. And you’ll find him smiling down from hoardings wherever you go. But taking his benign aspect for granted is a sure-fire way to land in prison on the charge of lese majeste. Ask Australian writer Harry Nicolaides who was thrown into jail for ‘insulting’ the Thai king.

Made from India

THE Thais are quite warm towards India. A week’s coverage in the Bangkok Post included not only the Jaipur Lit Festival but also sadhus bathing at the Sangam and a malkhambh display at a rural sports meet in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. Bollywood, especially its soundtracks, is big too. Dostana, I was told, did well here. Jantawan, a Thammasat University undergrad who joined us later in the week, didn’t understand a word of Hindi but had an endless repertoire of Hindi songs, from Sridevi-starrer Chandni to the more recent Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

Traces of shared culture are everywhere. One of our diplomat-hosts was called Chotika (Jyotika), another Pratana (Prarthana). As Sompop Sermswatsri, first secretary at the South Asian Division, put it, “We have Chinese looks and Indian culture.”

Thais are like us is one other way — they are equally upwardly-mobile. Leave aside their youth who model themselves on the lines of Hollywood stars; even bus drivers are an aspirational lot. The shabbiest of Bangkok’s buses bear the ‘Merc’ star. Tuk-tuks — more sound than fury — also bear their share of hyperbolic iconography, such as ‘four-wheel-drive’ stickers.

For all its First World skyscrapers, Bangkok has plenty of slums, and, more to the point, the commoner kind of houses above shops, reminiscent of Daryaganj and Karol Bagh. Like our homes, these, too, are wrapped in grilles — an obvious pointer to the frequency of burglaries and break-ins here.

At first sight, Thais seemed more orderly. The benches, tables and walls in Thammasat University’s conference room were bereft of etchings and graffiti. No spittle marks. But then the Thais display the same disregard for queues as any true-blue Delhiite. The traffic in Bangkok isn’t half as mixed up as Delhi’s (no rickshaws, carts or tractor trolleys). But its pace is much slower thanks to the too many, too long stops at traffic signals.

Eating disorders

THE Thais may be nice, but they have one big problem: their ‘early’ habits. They breakfast at 6 am and lunch no later than 12 noon. But it's dinner, anytime after 6 pm. That I cannot imagine getting used to. We were practically eating our last meal of the day at 5 pm IST! By 10 pm (Thai time), all the food outlets across the eight floors of Central World Mall were closed.

Our eight-member Indian team showed some reformatory zeal by holding up everyone else by an hour or so every morning. We couldn’t convert them to our ‘late’ habits. But, for once, we got the smiley Thais to frown.

Abhilash Gaur was in Bangkok for a six-day cultural exchange programme.